irish travellers

chris (thnx, chris!) drew my attention to an interesting looking documentary called Knuckle (ouch!) about the tradition of bare-knuckle fighting amongst the irish travellers.

the irish travellers are a bunch of gypsy-like people in/from ireland, but they’re not related to the “roma” people. they are instead an indigenous irish group with a nomadic lifestyle. north, et. al., found that genetically:

“[T]he Travellers clustered with several heterogeneous counties in Ireland, including Wexford and Westmeath. Therefore, these data support that the origin of the Travellers was not a sudden event; rather a gradual formation of populations. Indeed, the Travellers probably originated with craftsmen and artisans forced to leave their monasteries (Crawford 1975). Later, their population grew as they were joined by various Irish groups that were forced to leave their homes because of various calamities and political upheavals (i.e. the potato famine and the repression of British occupation) (Crawford 1975). However, the timing of the Traveller origin is not certain and may have predated the historical period (e.g. Ni Shuinear 1996).”

so these travellers have no relation to gypsies, but are, rather, native irish people gone feral. it’s not clear when exactly this happened (sounds like there are some indications that their wanderings may have started around the end of the medieval period) — and it seems that different irish people from around the island have joined up with the travellers over the course of time — but they are definitely a native group.

what they have in common with gypsies, however, besides the wandering lifestyle, is frequently being on the wrong side of the law. and they also, as the documentary shows, like to fight. with each other. here from the nyt:

“[T]he documentary ‘Knuckle,’ a rib-cracking look at the brutal fistfights long used to settle feuds between clans of Irish travelers — nomadic families that go back centuries in Ireland….

“‘Knuckle’ is fueled by the personality of this big man, who is undefeated in fighting for his family name against the Joyce and Nevin clans.

Never mind that the three clans themselves are interrelated with, as the film puts it, ‘brothers and cousins fighting brothers and cousins….’

“The feud in the film was supposedly started by a torched tinker’s cart at a horse fair, and renewed in 1992 by a deadly fight outside a pub, for which Mr. Quinn McDonagh’s brother Patty served prison time for manslaughter.

“In the film, Mr. Quinn McDonagh is derided as Baldy James by rival clan members who send taunting videotaped challenges, a modern wrinkle on this centuries-old tradition….”

a study from 1970/1986 found that 71.6% of travellers in one part of ireland were married to either first- or second-cousins [see pg. 11 here]. another study from 1989 found that 65.5% of irish travellers in northern ireland were married to either first- or second-cousins. that’s a LOT of inbreeding. it’s hard to know for how long they’ve been inbreeding to these degrees, but on the whole the group’s mating practices have been very endogamous probably for centuries, excepting of course the individuals from the broader population who joined up with them every now and again.

the travellers are clannish — they really do have clans! (and they have their own language, too, which will really set you off as a separate group from “the others.”) north, et. al., describe how they travel (or travelled traditionally) “in patrilineally related groups of two to four families.”

the question is: are these travellers more clannish than the rest of the irish were before they (the irish) started to seriously outbreed (whenever that was — sometime after the eleventh century but before the mid-twentieth — i know, that really narrows it down!)? or are the travellers just behaving like all the irish used to do when they were clannish, too? from Ireland — Land, Politics, and People [pgs. 57-58]:

“The outrage reports for pre-famine Cloone confirm the importance of ‘neighbourhood and kinship ties’ in aligning the factions involved in ‘party fights’. Thus at Drimna, in 1838, ‘a faction fight took place between two hostile parties, named Deignan’s and Mullin’s, respecting the right to the possession of a small portion of land’. Other such confrontations were of a ritual rather than material character, providing an occasion for ‘long-tailed’ families to assert their corporate identity and importance through trials of strength. Indeed market-day brawls could be provoked merely by the affirmation of family affiliation, as when a certain Cooke of Carrigallen ‘retreated towards a Public House where a party of his friends were drinking and when near it he called out ‘Who dared say anything against a Cooke…?’ It is clear that the ceremonial grappling of factions became unusual after the Famine, despite occasional reports throughout the century…. Familial networks, though, in less overt fashion, never ceased to lend cohesion to rural associations ranging from the Society of Ribbonmen to the United Irish League or Sinn Fein.”

so, clan fights were still fairly common in ireland during the early 1800s, but seem to have pretty much ceased after ca. 1850. except amonst the travellers. is that because the travellers are more inbred nowadays than the irish ever were, or are they just the last remaining (inbreeding) clans in ireland?

btw, this isn’t about travellers but rather about gypsies — from The Traveller-Gypsies [pgs. 88-89]:

“When Gypsies choose the layout [of their campsite], they often place the trailers in a circle, with a single entrance. The main windows, usually the towing bar end, face inwards. Every trailer and its occupants can be seen by everyone else…. Few draw curtains, even at night. Within this circle of group solidarity there can be no secrets — domestic quarrels are for all to see, the centre is a place for chatting, and a safe enclave for children to play…. The single entry to the circle is a deterrent to Gorgio [non-gypsy] visitors. Outsider are enclosed as if in a trap.”

remember my post about inbreeding and outbreeding and inward facing versus outward facing houses? mmmm-hmmm.

previously: inbreeding in europe’s periphery and inbreeding in ireland in modern times

(note: comments do not require an email. american irish travellers.)